TV Recap: Doctor Who, ‘Death in Heaven’

Doctor Who (series 8) ep 12

Doctor Who’s eighth season/series came to a close last night with the stellar (but emotionally ruining) episode, “Death in Heaven.” This finale proved to be rather brutal in both action and theme. It’s something I didn’t think the show was capable of showcasing because of its family-based audience. However, let’s give credit where credit is due — Steven Moffat showed that it is possible. [As a show runner] you have to have faith that your viewers are sophisticated enough to know how to handle dark themes like death. While overstuffed with a lot of ideas (some that worked and some that didn’t) “Death in Heaven” was, for the first time in ages, a proper conclusion to not only a superb two-parter but to the season/series as a whole.

Photo Credit: Adrian Rogers, ©BBC/BBC WORLDWIDE 2014
Photo Credit: Adrian Rogers, ©BBC/BBC WORLDWIDE 2014

This episode really showed the flaws of the previous episode, “Dark Water.” “Death in Heaven” explains and executes ideas here better than last week did. A number of things introduced last week as “the best elements” are tossed aside here — including the Nethersphere and even Seb who gets all but two brief scenes before being killed by Missy. There is also all that stuff of Clara trying to convince The Cybermen that she is actually The Doctor (which has its pros and cons) but is mainly pointless. It does provide for an amusing re-write in the opening credits and a way to eat up time for Clara, but it’s ultimately a waste of time. The Same goes for most of the plot involving UNIT which feels tacked on — even if it’s more than welcomed. If anything its inclusion was worth it just for the chilling and surprising death of Osgood (Ingrid Oliver) which wouldn’t have been as shocking had Michelle Gomez (Missy) not sold the hell out of the build up to that moment.

Let’s not beat around the bush any longer; this IS the best Master story in the new series. With all due respect to John Simm, the reason Michelle Gomez hits it out of the park as Missy is there isn’t room for scenery chewing, just wild intent and purpose. She is bat shit crazy, at times sensible, but as always there is a fundamental flaw that leads to her defeat and acceptance of it. The one thing that most new fans aren’t aware of was back in the original series the dynamic of the Doctor and The Master was based solely on a cat and mouse game of approval. These two have a history that at one time was pleasant but the universe got the best of one of them. The reveal that her plan was to show that one is not different from the other plays off that old school dynamic. It’s about respect and acknowledging it for The Master but in many cases it takes a lot of severe actions to initiate it which we see here by the numerous deaths and the grand scheme involving The Cybermen.

Photo Credit: Adrian Rogers, ©BBC/BBC WORLDWIDE 2014
Photo Credit: Adrian Rogers, ©BBC/BBC WORLDWIDE 2014

The reason I have always stood on a soapbox for The Cybermen is because their actual concept is far more horrifying than how they have been portrayed on the show in recent years. The horror of being devoid of emotions often hacked up bit by bit and infused with cold, lifeless mechanical parts is about as disturbing as it comes in science fiction. Here we were reminded of that again with the shots of confused cybermen rising from graves and of course there is Danny (Samuel Anderson). The image of a cybernized Danny Pink sitting there in pain at the sight of seeing the woman he loves is about as heartbreaking as it gets. Even the minimal make up used on Samuel Anderson is skin crawling worthy and sells the situation well. I am happy that we got a solid Cybermen story even if it technically at it’s heart is not one.

But much like the rest of the season, “Death in Heaven” is never about the bigger picture as much as it is the immediate one. While all the above mentioned moments with Missy and The Cybermen sell the story and are wonderful highlights — this story comes down to the story of The Doctor, Clara, and Danny. Everything comes to a head here and we finally resolve why The Doctor feels the way he does about soldiers and it comes like all things with The Doctor this season with a moment of misjudgment. He assumes that because Danny is now a Cybermen and he will never be able to disassociate Clara from any other human. But, as the Doctor realizes with much satisfaction and joy that love is a promise and soldiers make promises — which is why The Doctor needs soldiers around him. Yes, this did all come at the expense of Clara losing Danny. For all those who have probably taken issue with how their storyline played out, you would have to be made of stone to not get choked up at many of their moments here. Samuel Anderson really deserves the same amount of credit that everyone is quick to give to Capaldi and Coleman.

Photo Credit: Adrian Rogers, ©BBC/BBC WORLDWIDE 2014
Photo Credit: Adrian Rogers, ©BBC/BBC WORLDWIDE 2014

There is a lot to take in emotionally; people die and many of them good, including poor Osgood and of course Danny. It hammers home a quick reminder in not just Doctor Who but any show of this caliber that no one gets a tomorrow. Mortality runs rampant through the show’s history but here it’s catered to what The Doctor’s cause really is. He is not necessarily a good man but definitely not a bad man — he is simply someone who understands that in the moment the right decisions yield the worst results. It’s his way of getting by in the universe, by seeing the bigger picture and what else is at stake but he is far lacking compassion. Instead of taking the path of predecessors and having a full blown emotional breakdown his sympathy and compassion is running through him in shock and frustration. The Doctor can be an idiot and as we have seen this season a real jerk but he knows where kindness and promises matter most and that makes him far more genuine than Missy could ever be.

I doubt this is the last we see of Missy because I think somewhere she falls into the bigger picture of The Doctor’s pursuit to find Gallifrey. If I were to put my money on it, this pursuit is probably going to encompass the majority of Series 9. What we are left with in the end are two best friends acknowledging their lack of positive reinforcement in life. Danny is gone and The Doctor is alone searching among the stars. However, I doubt this is the last we see of Clara. She is listed as part of the cast of the Christmas special that we saw a brief glimpse of (Nick Frost as Santa!?) but for now I think we get an ending to their storyline that is neither cruel nor cowardly and not necessarily good or bad. “Death in Heaven” had a lot of bad happen but its sheer brilliance and how captivating it was to watch and dissect allowed it to be so much more than just a season finale.

On a personal note I can’t begin to stress how amazing this season was as a fan and a writer. I had begun to worry towards the end of Matt Smith’s era that the show had lost a sense of purpose and no real character development. But, I was wrong and boy am I glad I was. In the right hands and under the right circumstances Doctor Who is a well-oiled machine. In this series we got the kind of quality that the show is worthy of thanks to some tremendous writers new and old, fantastic directors, and of course two leads who put so much into a little sci fi show about an alien who travels around in a blue box.

See you lot again at Christmas.

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Jason Stives is the resident Anglophile and Pop-Break representative for BBC America conducting weekly reviews of Doctor Who and Orphan Black. He is currently a contributing writer for PropertyofZack.com and a freelance creative consultant for fundraising and marketing campaigns in New Jersey’s various art communities. He is a graduate of Rutgers University’s class of 2010 with a bachelors in Journalism and Media Studies. When he isn’t attending concerts or writing the great American novel he moonlights as lounge crooner J.M Heavyhart turning the works of Dokken and Dio into Sinatra-esque standards (or at least he would like to be). Follow his constant retweets and occasionally witty banter on Twitter at @jaystives.
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